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Part IV of V By Seth Boyes - News Editor, Dickinson County News

A piece of history spent almost two years in the offices of the Dickinson County News. This five-part Stolen History series chronicles a four-year journey DCN News Editor Seth Boyes embarked on in order to help return a native artifact, which was supposedly stolen from the Gardner Cabin Museum in Arnolds Park some 70 years ago, to its display case. What initially seemed like a simple courtesy to the local museum became a major research project and called for deep dives into archives of decades-old reporting, formal record requests to government officials, help from fellow journalists, coordination with the State Historical Society of Iowa and contact with other individuals across the country.

Exhausted as I was and preoccupied with other things, I still could not ignore the novelty of the situation; and the impressions produced will never be forgotten.
Portrait of Abbie Gardner Sharp (PH5000.1051), State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines

FACES AND NAMES

The DCN’s quest for a living relative of Abbie Gardner Sharp continued in 2020, as staff sought to aid in returning an item stolen from the Gardner Cabin Museum to its display case.

A plastic tote sat on a desk in the darkened conference room of the Dickinson County News. Its contents — a beaded leather pipe bag — had once been held within the Gardner Cabin Museum in Arnolds Park.

The museum’s founder, Abbie Gardner Sharp, had witnessed the murder of her family at the hands of an exasperated band of Wahpekute Sioux in early 1857 — the now infamous violence soon became known as the Spirit Lake Massacre. Gardner was taken captive during the attacks, but the teenager survived to be ransomed about eight months later in South Dakota — half of her fellow captives weren’t so lucky. Gardner later returned to her former home and transformed it into one of the state's earliest tourist attractions — a museum, with displays and items to help tell the story of her tragic experience.

But some of the museum pieces disappeared during a little-known theft sometime in the 1940s or '50s. A pair of teenage lovers were the culprits. They took a pair of moccasins and a beaded leather pipe bag — ultimately destroying the footwear and stashing the bag in a musty basement.

Though the crime went largely unnoticed by the public, the thieves' descendants knew the story well. And, after the burglars themselves passed away, a member of their family reached out to the Dickinson County News and asked for help returning what wasn't rightfully theirs to keep.

The Gardner Cabin Museum in Arnolds Park holds items similar to those the Gardner family might have used when they settled near West Lake Okoboji. Unbeknownst to most of the community, two items were stolen from the cabin museum sometime during the 1940s or '50s.

The DCN's news staff agreed to act as a go-between for the stolen bag’s return. However, the staff's role as middle-man became more complicated. Due to the circumstances, the State Historical Society of Iowa needed permission from a living descendant of Gardner herself before officials could legally accept the stolen pipe bag back into the local museum's collection.

It was a tall order.

Dickinson County News Editor Seth Boyes worked for the better part of a year to retrace the Gardner family tree — sifting through local newspaper clippings and calling up entries in the National Archives.

He'd found record of Gardner’s granddaughter Bonita Wygle and her husband Fred, which eventually led him to a distant relative — a granddaughter of Fred Wygle’s cousin.

Progress to be sure — but that thin connection to the pioneer family wasn’t enough to satisfy the state’s legal team. The granddaughter of an in-law's cousin was a twig on the family tree, and the state needed a sturdy limb – plus the reporter hadn't heard back from the woman after reaching out to her months earlier.

SILENCE AND UNEXPECTED ANSWERS

A historic marker stands near the granite obelisk which memorilizes the events of the Spirit Lake Massacre.

Despite filling in more and more of the Gardner family tree over the first several weeks of 2020, most of Boyes' leads didn't pan out. Many of the relatives he tracked down were deceased, and information on the living seemed increasingly scarce.

But, on March 5, 2020, a lead the news writer had written off as another dead end proved to be a fateful bend in the road.

Even in the age of cellphones and social media, messages can sometimes go unread. Such was the case with the Facebook message Boyes had sent the granddaughter of Fred Wygle's cousin. It had gone unreturned for about three months, but now a reply was waiting in Boyes' inbox.

The woman's distant connection to Abbie Gardner wasn't enough to bring the stolen pipe bag home, but she knew of someone who just might fit the bill. She pointed Boyes to a man named Donald Wygle in southern Arizona.

But Boyes and his contacts at the State Historical Society of Iowa would have to wait to see if that tip would pay off.

Within days, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an emergency proclamation in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic. It monopolized the time and attention of journalists around the world, and the Dickinson County News' staff was no exception. Office doors were locked, and the newspaper's small staff struggled to keep up with the flood of almost daily updates and information from state and local officials.

The search for a descendant of Abbie Gardner – like much of daily life during the early days of the pandemic – came to a standstill.

SUCCESS AMIDST A PANDEMIC

A voicemail in July of 2020 helped clear a path for the stolen pipe bag's return to the Gardner Cabin Museum.

It was mid-July before Boyes made time to dial the Arizona man's phone number. The reporter left a voicemail the afternoon of Friday, July 17, 2020, not holding out much hope this lead would be any more successful than all the others had been up to that point — but it was.

A voicemail was waiting for him Monday morning.

"Hi, Seth," an elderly man's voice said. "You gave me a call yesterday, and I wasn't available, but I had relatives that you're seeking to talk to me about in the Spirit Lake Massacre — the Gardner Family, etc. — yes, I am part of that family."

Some good news in the summer of 2020, and Boyes — at long last — had a reason to smile. He wasted little time returning Wygle's call. He and the retired electrical engineer talked for about an hour that day.

Donald Carson Wygle looked over his collection of family photos and news clippings at his home in Arizona. (Photo submitted)

The reporter easily connected details from their conversation with information he'd already gathered during his months of research on the Wygle family and their connection to Abbie Gardner. But there was plenty more to learn.

Wygle said his mother, Berdena Crosgrove, had married Gerald Wygle — a great grandson of Abbie Gardner Sharp and brother of a deceased WWII sailor Boyes had already uncovered during his own research.

Left: Berdena Crosgrove and Gerald Wygle were married in October of 1933. Above center: Gerald Wygle, approximately age 10, stands with his father Alfred Wygle. Above right: Bonita Wygle - granddaughter of Abbie Gardner Sharp - stands with her grandson Donald Wygle. Bottom right: Gerald Wygle sits astride a bicycle with his young son Donald Wygle in the bicycle's basket. (Photos submitted)

News clippings in Donald Wygle's collection even mentioned Pillager and Staples — two Minnesota towns that had come up as the reporter traced the family's move from northwest Iowa in 1924. Gerald Wygle and Berdena Crosgrove were quietly married about nine years after the move, according to their son's clippings — but it wasn't to last.

"He and my mother separated when I was about 2-years-old," Wygle said. "He couldn't find work in the Pillager area after he graduated from school and married my mother and I was born. He wanted to go west. That was in the '30s, of course, and there was scant work everywhere. He went west to Washington to try to find a decent job."

Earlier research had already found mention of Gerald Wygle living in Seattle, Washington, around 1943, and U.S. Census records from 1940 listed him as a general laborer in Yakima County, Washington. He had been born in Iowa but relocated to the Evergreen State from Minnesota, according to the hand-written census. A cursive letter "D" in the twelfth column of the page indicated Wygle was divorced. Other census records that year listed a 5-year-old Donald Wygle as part of his grandparents' household in Cass County, Minnesota.

U.S. Census records from 1940 contained information on three generations of Wygle men and their families.

Line 20 of the census page. (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

Father Fred Wygle was listed as working in Minnesota at a power station – his grandson later specified Fred Wygle worked at the Crow Wing Dam. Wygle's wife Bonita and daughter Margery were also listed as part of the household in 1940.

Son Gerald Wygle was working as a general laborer in south-central Washington state.

Line 52 of the census page. (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

He eventually found employment at Boeing Corporation, according to his son. The 1940 census listed him as a boarder in the household.

Grandson Donald Wygle was listed as a member of his maternal grandparents' household in Cass County, Minnesota.

Line 77 of the census page. (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

He said his mother chose to stay behind in Minnesota and care for her mother while Gerald Wygle headed west in search of employment. Donald Wygle was 5-years-old at the time of the census.

Crosgrove was faced with a decision, according to her son — join her husband in his search for work out west or stay in Minnesota to help care for her own mother.

She decided to stay behind in Minnesota.

Crosgrove and her son lived in several different locations over the next 17 years in pursuit of promising job offers. Donald Wygle eventually joined the Air Force, married his high school sweetheart and went on to earn a degree from the University of North Dakota. He and his wife had four children, but Wygle said his family's connection to Abbie Gardner isn't a common topic of conversation, though the family had visited the cabin museum in years past.

"I'm the only one that's interested much in that area," Wygle said.

Boyes assured him they had a shared interest in the history of the Gardner family, and he went on to explain the full scope of his project — it was the first time the reporter had breathed more than a whisper about the stolen pipe bag to anyone outside his trusted circle in 15 months of research. Wygle seemed stunned by the tale initially, but he said he would be glad to help return the stolen artifact if he could.

However, Boyes' task wasn't quite finished. Though he believed Wygle's account, the State Historical Society of Iowa would need documentation confirming what he'd been told over the phone.

HELP FROM AFAR

Census records and public information requests to Minnesota officials helped prove Wygle’s relation to Abbie Gardner Sharp.

The staff writer reached out to Michael Plummer, historic sites manager with the State Historical Society of Iowa, and told him about his call with Wygle.

Both of them hoped a few lines from an obituary or two would verify enough of the man's story to put the pipe bag back on display at the Gardner Cabin Museum.

The Wygle family was able to provide some information, but the obituaries they guided Boyes toward didn't specifically mention the family ties he'd hoped to find laid out in black and white.

Boyes checked far-flung newspapers, libraries and even funeral homes for documentation to prove the Arizona man was indeed a blood relative of Abbie Gardner — no luck. In fact, some funeral homes said they were legally prohibited from providing the journalist with further information.

Rules were rules — there wasn’t much Boyes could do about that.

But, if he adjusted his approach, the law would not only allow him to get the information he needed but, in many cases, would guarantee it.

Returning a Native American artifact to a museum hadn't seemed like the type of thing that would require public record requests to be filed, but it did the trick.

Officials at the Itasca County Courthouse in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, helped confirm Wygle’s parents were married on Oct. 20, 1933, and state birth records bridged the gap in a direct line from Donald Wygle back to Abbie Gardner Sharp herself.

As the nation prepared for its first Thanksgiving in the COVID era, state historians finally had both pieces of the puzzle — verifiable proof of lineage and permission to return the pipe bag to its museum display case.

HISTORY HITS THE ROAD

Michael Plummer with the State Historical Society of Iowa took the pipe bag for further examination almost exactly two years after it was first delivered by mail to the Dickinson County News.

The pipe bag had first arrived at the Dickinson County News by mail. But the historic artifact’s next transfer happened in person.

Plummer visited the Dickinson County News' office on April 16, 2021 – almost two years to the day since the leather pipe bag had been marked as delivered in the DCN's post office box.

Boyes handed over the pipe bag — plastic tote and all — to Plummer, who loaded it into the back seat of his car. But before it could be exhibited behind glass just 10 miles from the newspaper office, it had to be examined more than 200 miles away in Des Moines. There, a team of state professionals would take a closer look at the pipe bag and decide the best way to display and care for it as part of the cabin museum's collection.

The local news reporter wouldn't see the formerly pilfered piece of history again for more than two years.

But when he did, it would mark the end of the pipe bag's journey and the fulfillment of his promise to a shy caller with a strong conscience.

NEXT WEEK: The end of a four-year journey

Missed an installment? Read the Stolen History series from the beginning: